Messiahs of the Pandemic

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Dubai – In March 2020, the world was hit with a virus, which created a havoc of unbelievable proportions, everywhere. The outbreak was first identified in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. The World Health Organization declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on January 30, and on March 11, a pandemic with as many as 213 countries and territories registered as affected.

With the pandemic, the world witnessed a collapse of social and economic machinery. It brought to the forefront the breakdown of governments, policies, research, and science at all levels. China and Italy were the worst affected; while the United States of America and India were close behind. The world had to shut down, literally.

On March 24th Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a lockdown in India, with immediate effect, as a measure to stop the spread of the virus. The number of affected cases at that time was about 425. While the lockdown was initially focused on the international migrants, the World Bank estimated that ‘the magnitude of internal migrants was two and half times more. India has a large number of migrant laborers in their commercial cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru; who come from poor remote villages to build a life there. Cities closed down and these people were left jobless and homeless overnight. They were left with no option but to return to their States, 1000-1500 kilometers away. With transportation systems shut down, many started walking back to their homes and villages, resulting in harrowing journeys home. COVID-19 had taken a backseat, here people were dying of hunger, fatigue and hardship. What emerged, were shocking images of an exodus on international media. The complete failure of the government to foresee the needs of this group and the ensuing anguish caused, amplified the class divide. While urban India went about adapting to lockdown by following or picking up new hobbies, there were stories of migrants dying on railway tracks in their sleep that went unnoticed.

It was during this time that two extraordinary humans rose to the occasion by their selfless humanitarian services, as Messiahs.

One of them a Michelin star chef, filmmaker, author Vikas Khanna, and the other an actor Sonu Sood. While one fed the people, the other arranged for them to be transported safely to their homes.

Sonu Sood said he was aware of the need to do charity at an early age from his parents. His mother taught underprivileged children for free and his father distributed food from his cloth shop in Moga. In an interview, Sood, speaks of his parents “They had drilled into me that you are successful only if you help others”. So, reaching out to the migrants came naturally. “I had no formula on how to help them, but there was this intention that I will not let these migrants walk home. We started by sending some hundreds home but now I am determined not to stop until the last migrant on the road has reached home” He, along with his friend Neeti Goel, a Mumbai-based restaurateur, set up a team of 40 volunteers and began sending people home by buses, trains and even flights. They opened a helpline number, and in no matter of time, it was flooded with calls. ‘Sonu Bhaiyya’ soon became the ‘National Hero’, he attended every call for help and ended up sending about 20,000 migrants to their homes in states like Assam, Bihar, Orissa. People sent him their pictures once they were home and reunited with their families, newborns were named after him, and his photo worshipped in homes.

Around the same time, when images of thousands of migrants walking to their homes – amongst them women and children – flooded international media, Vikas Khanna wept as he watched them in his apartment in New York. “We have failed our people, I want to show that solidarity exists,” he said in an interview. He received a spam mail, saying after the lockdown the old age homes have been worst affected, and they needed your attention. The mail had pictures of old people lying on the floor, without food. He deleted the mail, but the pictures haunted him. He tweeted about the issue to check whether it was true or not and rest is history. There were hundreds of responses from various places like Goa and Karnataka. Taking the help of the National Disaster Relief Force, Khanna sprung to action. Khanna’s initiative #feedindia distributed more than seven million packets of dry food and cooked meals in about 80 days in various cities of India. The rice manufacturers India Gate and Daawat joined in and HungerBox, a food technology company, offered the use of its industrial kitchens in Mumbai and Noida to cook over 20,000 meals every day. Distribution of food had its challenges, it was almost impossible to get food to zones that were marked ‘red’. But Khanna worked relentlessly, coordinating this gigantic task from his apartment in Manhattan. Khanna also became the darling of urban India, when on being asked by a BBC anchor, “You’ve cooked for the Obamas, you’ve been on a TV show with Gordon Ramsay. But it wasn’t always that way, was it? You’re not from a rich family. So, I dare say, you understand how precarious it can be in India,” he replied calmly “No, I am from Amritsar, everyone gets fed there in the langars. My sense of hunger came from New York.”

Khanna had spent his childhood in Amritsar, the city of the Golden Temple of Sikhs; where to serve in the ‘langar’ or community kitchen is a way of living life. The Sikh community is known for feeding people irrespective of color or caste, in any crisis the world over. Khanna was always inspired by this and realized the hazards of ‘hunger’. Khanna’s initiative #FeedIndia feeds an estimated 275,000 people each day and he does not want to stop yet.

This pandemic has shed light on many shortcomings of the state’s inadequacy in stepping in for their majority workforce. The crisis required the governments and leaders to regulate normalcy into the society by exhibiting solidarity, which they failed miserably at. The decisions taken at the policy level did not factor the human cost adequately. This tragedy of human suffering caused both by the pandemic and the lockdown will remain embedded in public memory for years to come.

What will be remembered is, how in the absence of proper welfare programs, the state machinery collapsed and could only be redeemed by ‘Individuals’, who took responsibility and thought beyond their welfare.

Sonu Sood and Vikas Khanna were inspirations to and representative of many others who realized the need for a reboot of the social hierarchy and worked towards it selflessly.

We do not know what the world will look like post COVID-19, but it certainly has made us aware of the evils that already exist in society and the impending need for collective action from ‘individuals’ to build economies that deliver inclusive growth, prosperity, and safety for all.

Sonu Sood and Vikas Khanna continue with their welfare work to date.

About the author

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Rituparna Mahapatra, is a writer based in Dubai. She taught English literature at Sambalpur University, Orissa and Delhi University. She worked briefly with Britannica India, and has contributed to many leading newspapers both regional and national. Currently she is editor-at-large UAE, of; and teaches creative writing in English.

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